During the Indian Premier League, television anchors Sameer Kochhar and Archana Vijaya finish discussing a match and announce a commercial break. Kochhar calls to make-up for a touch-up and sprays on some Axe deodorant the make-up artist brings with him. Vijaya, who’s calling in from the field, gets a whiff and is promptly turned on. An embarrassed Kochhar looks down at the can in his hand and then checks hurriedly with the production team that the cameras are off: “Are we rolling?” This video is a new favourite with Dhruv Bajaj and his friend Aditya Banerjee, both 18-year old students at a suburban Mumbai college. “It’s hilarious. We log on to YouTube all the time to see Axe ads,” says Bajaj. Others share their interest in the ads: since it was uploaded in end-May, the Kochhar-Vijaya video (it’s deliberately not listed as an ad) has already got over 100,000 hits.
That, then, is the real Axe effect: if you’re male and under 45, you’ve heard of the brand and been intrigued. Sure, virtually no one who talks about the deodorant mentions its fragrance or whether it is effective in its prime purpose, of masking body odour. But when a brand promise hinges on getting you the girl — or rather, the girls — of your dreams, does all that really matter?
When Hindustan Unilever (HUL) launched the brand in India in 1997, the deodorant category was virtually non-existent in the country. Since then, it’s grown to ₹1,300 crore and Axe dominates it with a 14% marketshare. First mover advantage and HUL’s formidable distribution strength have certainly contributed to that growth but really, Axe has been a commercial success primarily because of its extremely titillating commercials.
An ad-made brand
Axe was first launched in France in 1983 and came to India only 14 years later. The youth connect was firmly established right from the start: for the launch, it tied up with MTV and hosted the ‘world’s longest dance party’ of over 55 hours. And India stuck to the same advertising and branding strategy that was followed around the world — indeed, most of the communication was directly imported from other countries (the brand is now sold in over 60 markets around the world).
Cheeky, slightly risqué advertising that shows average-looking men being swarmed by stunning beauties after they spray on the deo carried a simple, but stunningly effective message: using this product will make you irresistible for women. For hormone-driven youngsters, that’s like discovering the Holy Grail. The target customer may be between 16 and 24 years, but walk through any mall in the metros and you’ll come across groups of boys as young as 12 who’ve doused themselves in the stuff.
And HUL has been driving home the same message again and again with every brand variant and communication — currently the brand has 13 deo variants in India and has expanded the range to shaving gel, foam, aftershave and talc. “The brand promise of Axe is based on the premise that men love to be part of the mating game, but don’t know how. Axe helps to bridge that gap,” says Kedar Teny, category head, deodorants, HUL.
Not all ads are well received. In 2008, the information and broadcasting ministry pulled the plug on an ad that showed a young man turning into chocolate and women enjoying him bite by bite. The ad was termed vulgar and repulsive. More recently, it’s again spoken up against overt sexuality in all deodorant ads (not Axe alone) and asked for modifications and toning down of the videos. HUL doesn’t admit it, but perhaps that’s also one reason why Axe has moved to the online platform in a big way in the past couple of years. Not only is that the natural hangout for youngsters, there’s also less censorship.
Now, close to half of HUL’s undisclosed ad budget for Axe is spent on new media like videos for YouTube and the Facebook page. For every television campaign, Axe makes three or four videos just for the online medium. After all, that’s where the party is — according to the MTV youth marketing forum 2012 report, the average youth spends up to five hours online everyday and watches TV for less than three hours. “A TV campaign just gives information. For brand evangelism, you need to ensure the target consumer is living and breathing the brand all the time. For that, you need to look outside traditional media,” points out Brijesh Jacob, managing partner of 22feet, Axe’s digital agency.
The biggest challenge now is to keep youthful customers engaged. “The task is to be ahead of the curve, not only in terms of offering the best product, but also in terms of communicating with the target audience,” agrees Teny. New posts are put up on Axe’s Facebook page every three or four days to ensure the 2.5 million registered users keep coming back. All communication, though, retains the ‘girls, girls, girls’ theme. For instance, a recent post on World Environment Day had an innocuous-looking picture of a tree — a closer look revealed that the trunk was shaped like a woman’s torso. The image got over 9,200 ‘likes’ and more than 2,300 comments. Unusual activations keep the interest alive. Last year, the brand launched a new variant called Axe Googly to coincide with the cricket World Cup. It developed a mobile app with the same name that allowed users to view live match scores, download wallpapers and play games. There was also a barely-dressed, virtual woman to act as an Axe Assistant for reminders and match schedules. The app was downloaded over 1 million times in just three months.
For teenagers and young men, the pressure to look appealing to the opposite sex is only increasing. Looking good can also mean spending big bucks on the right clothes and shoes. If instead they are convinced that they can get the girls by forking out ₹99 for an aluminium can, their brain-dead choice is obvious. Why, this way, they don’t even need to shower.